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pix The Guitarist As A Composer pix
pix pix by Gerry Magee  

Page added in October, 1998 [Page: First 2 3 4 5]

About The Author

Scottish guitarist Gerry Magee has recently completed work on his debut solo album, entitled The Middle Pillar.. He has been teaching guitar privately for five years to students of all styles and abilities.

Prior to recording The Middle Pillar, Gerry performed as a guitarist and composer for the group Serenade on their second release, The 28th Parallel.

Send comments or questions to Gerry Magee.

© Gerry Magee

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"...It's just that I am a composer that happens to play guitar."
-- Frank Zappa
There are three reasons why any guitarists that write music should think of themselves as composers:
  • It changes the perception of oneself in a positive way
  • We become more conscious of other musicians
  • It dispels boundaries created by restrictive thought
Let's face it, guitar is without a doubt the coolest instrument ever to grace this solar system. So, why is it that so many guitarists abuse this tool by only writing instrumental guitar music with it? When a guitarist begins to perceive his or her self as a composer, they begin to use this instrument to it's full potential, as this view point brings about the realization of the instruments ability to act as a catalyst for compositions. We would then perhaps become less obsessed with technique and focus more on musicality.

Now, I do not wish to imply that guitarists are not musical, we know this is not the case. However, in our ongoing search for that perfect lick we have an alarming tendency to neglect other instruments and thus our compositional abilities suffer. Ask yourself what goes through your mind when you begin writing a song? Does the guitar get precedence over everything else? Do the drum and bass arrangements pale into insignificance? Have a listen to Steve Vai's "Flexible"; the entire album is much more about orchestration than soloing. "The Attitude Song" is a brilliant piece of writing for all instruments. The introductory drum groove is ridiculously difficult (hands play 4/4 while your feet play 7/16).

As musicians we have to be conscious of others, not becoming so self-contained that we forget how to communicate through music. If the guitarist works as part of a team the end result is far more compositionally sound, producing solid grooves with which the guitar blends, creating an interesting sonic experience. On an instrumental guitar track you may be doing all the soloing, but the arrangements should still interest the other musicians.

Example #1 below is taken from one of my own tracks, "Interterrestrial Tongues". There is a hell of a lot of guitar on this track but as you can see, the other instruments get their own share of madness on manuscript. The essential groove had been set up by the drums and the bass, though in this, the chorus section, the drums are purposely 'going across' the bass line. This creates rhythmic tension and also unfortunately makes it very difficult to play. The tension is increased by the fact that the lead guitar and vocals are playing unusual tuplets over this groove (help!!).

MP3 - Example #1

Score - Example #1

Compositionally speaking the form of the piece is A B A. However, both the A and the B sections contain forms of their own, which are essentially in an a b a b pattern. The B section again highlights the guitar soloing ability, although the bass and drum arrangements have a lot of subtleties of their own. The hits are written for every backing instrument. See Example #2.

MP3 - Example #2

Score - Example #2

Now there is a perfectly valid argument that music designed to showcase one instrument should do just that and the other parts should not get in the way. Take Paganini's "Violin Concerto #1" for example, the texture of the orchestra is purposely homophonic to avoid collision with the soloist. There may also be a view point that this implementation of homophonic movement actually shows good compositional skills, as a 'bad' composer would have perhaps made the melodic movement more contrapuntal and therefore detract attention from the violin. Who knows? One thing is certain however, I have never heard anyone describe Paganini's concertos as great compositional feats. I have conversely heard them described as virtuosic, which basically means, "the violin playing is great but the music ain't". So maybe by now you are starting to see the direction that I am coming from? Then again maybe not!

Many guitarists delude themselves by believing that because they play a lot of notes their music is challenging both technically and compositionally. Would a musical section containing one note be too boring or too simple? If you answered 'yes' then sight reading the section in Example #3 will pose you little problems. Good luck!

MP3 - Example #3

Score - Example #3

Do guitarists have restricted thought patterns with regards to composition? Well, I believe many of us do. Think about the number of times that you have attempted to write a piece that did not contain guitar (perish the very thought). If you haven't perhaps it is time that you did, as writing for other instruments allows you a better insight into writing for your own. The possibilities become endless and the criteria of what makes a great piece of music suddenly changes. We then have guitarists writing piano trios, string quartets and concertos for Egyptian nose flute. You've got the chops and you will never lose them, so why not try giving them to someone else. It is only then that you can experience the sheer joy of handing a piece in F# major containing 'scary tuplets' to your selected oboe player and watching the color drain from their face.

Goddamned Wierdos Productions
'Music Is Mindform'

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